Three Revelations

In the early morning hours the bedroom in which I sleep is bathed in light as the sun peeks over Indian Mountain.  I reach for the drawer of the bedside table and grope for the eyeshade that might afford another hour’s sleep.  I’m always amazed how much light can sneak through the cracks in closed blinds.  It doesn’t take a lot of light to dispel darkness.  The light always wins.

Since I transitioned, the light has been bright.  The number and scope of discoveries I have made is beyond anything I had envisioned.

I knew I would be rejected by my religious heritage, though I was not aware how complete it would be.  I knew there would be some loss of privilege, and fewer job opportunities.  Back then, all of the coming disruption was seen through a glass darkly.  In the light of day, it has been disturbingly enlightening.  It is always disarming when light dispels darkness.

The single most difficult reality is how my transition affected my family.  But I don’t get to write about that.  They do.  My son’s book, She’s My Dad, will be published by Westminster John Knox this coming November.  I wrote a few thousand words for the book, but it is Jonathan’s memoir, and it is raw and beautiful.

The second most disturbing reality is how I have been treated by evangelicalism.  But I knew that would not go well.  Last year I was one of eight or nine people interviewed for a booklet published this month by the Human Rights Campaign entitled Coming Home to Evangelicalism and to Self.   It is the last in a series the HRC has been publishing about religion and the LGBTQ community.

I had forgotten I was interviewed, but when the booklet came out, the evangelical world made sure I was reminded of my part in it. With news releases and nasty emails, they continued their campaign of bigotry.  I have become accustomed to the vilification.  I expect it.  But I was not expecting the third most disturbing discovery of transitioning.

I had no idea how privileged I was.  I am pleased beyond measure that my TEDxMileHigh talk passed one million views last week, because I have a lot of work to do.  I had no shortage of illustrative material for the talk, because virtually every single day I am confronted with misogynistic condescension.  Sometimes it is overt and obvious.  More often it is subtle and difficult to articulate.

I was recently at a Modern Market restaurant in Colorado with my former wife and granddaughters.  The lack of communication from the inadequately educated workers was a problem as they started to give one granddaughter food to which she is very allergic.  When Cathy and I attempted to speak with the young manager about the problem, it became readily apparent the problem began with the manager.  He spoke over the top of us repeatedly, never listening to a word we said.

I became exasperated and raised my voice, at which point he called me a “hysterical female ” and made additional extremely misogynistic comments. I was livid and did not back down.  In the first year after transitioning, I was always stunned and rendered speechless when I was treated so disrespectfully.  Not anymore.

Almost as frustrating are those times when the misogyny is subtle.  When I arrived at my hotel in Asheville last week, I was given a room bordering a busy interstate highway.  I went to the front desk and said, “I’m surprised you would put a Lifetime Platinum member in a room you know is noisy,” and asked to be moved. The male at the desk said, “Some Platinum members prefer the highway side.”  That is the kind of subtle misogyny to which I have grown accustomed, a male not wanting to be called out by a female.

The truth is that when I was a man I never had a hotel desk clerk ever suggest Platinum members would prefer the noisier side of a hotel.  It would have been absurd to suggest such a thing.  There would have been a quick apology, accompanied by a comment about someone else having blocked off the rooms without paying attention to the elite status of guests.  I know, because it happened fairly often.  I let the hotel comment slide, because the desk clerk was otherwise respectful.

The misogyny is troubling enough.  But here is what is more troubling:  While I know I was never like the restaurant manager, I wonder how many times I behaved like the hotel desk clerk?  How many times did I use an implausible explanation to a woman because, as a male, I did not want to lose face?

I’d better live a long time, because I have a lot for which I need to make up.

Once Upon a Time

I have had most of my granddaughters with me for the better part of three weeks and paradoxically, I feel both tired and younger.  The days I have had all five (all between the ages of 7 and 10) I am definitely tired. But their wide-eyed expectation keeps me going from early in the morning until they are tucked in at night.

I tell the girls a bedtime story every evening.  I have no idea what story I am going to tell until seconds before I begin. It usually involves young girls on an adventure not exactly endorsed by their parents, but one that ends with children or animals being saved from peril.

I’ve known pastors who spend no more than one hour in sermon preparation.  They think it does not show.  It does.  But the pastor is so engaged trying to pull together cogently connected paragraphs that the sermon seems better than it actually is.  The pastor’s brain is working hard.  Not so the audience.

There are a lot of reasons creating a sermon on the fly is a bad idea.  Foremost among them is the difficulty of pulling together didactic information without forethought.  Telling a story is different.

We are narrative-based creatures.  We do not sleep without dreaming, and we do not dream in mathematical equations.  We dream in stories.  Our need for story is downright physiological.  Therefore, our brains are wired for stories.  That is one of the reasons I prefer narrative preaching.  Everyone loves a good story.

Good stories always have the same wonderful elements.  There is a protagonist who wants something with which the audience can identify.  There is an antagonist who wants to stop her.  Suspense builds to a dread/hope axis.  The audience dreads one outcome and hopes for another.  A good story always makes sure the audience gets what it wants, but not in the way it expects it.  The element of surprise is the icing.

I have a friend who once considered investing in a Broadway musical about a traveling executioner. I had a hard time imagining a story with an executioner as the protagonist.  So did audiences.  The show flopped.  You should be suspicious of a playwright who ignores conventional narrative wisdom.  We want our heroes to be flawed, but we want our stories to be redemptive.

There is another interesting truth about humans and stories.  We want the hero to behave better than we are likely to behave in real life.  There was one day in the last couple of weeks in which one particular granddaughter had difficulty with the truth.  As a grandparent, I do not believe it is my job to be the moral police; parents get to do that.  But I do need to keep the peace.  She showed little contrition.  She just wanted what she wanted and was willing to be untruthful to get it.

However, when story time came she desperately wanted the hero to make the right decision and tell the truth.  It seemed rather ironic.  Filmmakers know the audience is always moral.  In their real lives the viewer may have just embezzled massive sums from their employer, but when they show up at the movies they want the hero to make the right decision.  We are an endlessly fascinating species.

Since the girls were staying for a longer period, this summer’s stories turned into the bedtime equivalent of a ten-episode summer cable series.  That allowed me to create a story arc with a fair amount of complexity.  After I finished each evening, I was more eager than the girls to find out what was going to happen next.

Bedtime stories take on a life of their own.  You do not always control the outcome.  I cared about the characters I had created.  Would they find redemption?  Would the hero do the right thing?  A lot was at stake, especially the sweet dreams of five little girls.  I needed to get it right.

I always left each episode with a cliffhanger.  There would be collective groans, “Please GramPaula, tell us what happens next!”  “Ah, but you must wait,” I said.  I had ulterior motives.  It is easier to get five little ones to bed when they know the answer to a cliffhanger will be revealed as soon as they get under the covers.

This current series ended with everyone safe, but forever changed.  That felt about right.  Isn’t that about all any of us can hope for?

The New York girls left early this morning.  All five granddaughters will be asleep in their own beds tonight.  I will be sitting in my living room missing them monumentally.  To take my mind off the loneliness I will watch one of those summer cable series, hoping the protagonist makes the right decision and the writers and show runners are smart enough to know to give the audience what they want, but not in the way they expect it.

And so it goes.

The Camera Always Lies

I read the New York Times and Washington Post every day.  I do not watch “reality” television.  It is hard enough trying to discern what is true and what is not true without the carefully constructed fantasy world of “reality” TV .

Back in the 1970s British broadcasting legend Malcolm Muggeridge said, “Not only can the camera lie.  The camera always lies.”  He was not talking about the current world in which you can photoshop just about anything.  He was talking about a simpler time when the picture taken was the picture seen.  But even then, Muggeridge rightly understood that pictures do not necessarily tell the truth.

The common notion is that if you have seen something with your own eyes, it must be true.  But in reality, it is not that simple.  Consider the two photographs above.  The photo on the left would make one think it was taken outside a prison camp.  On the other hand, the photo on the right looks like it was taken from a vacation home in the Rockies.

Both photos were actually taken from the exact same spot in my side yard.  In the first the camera is pointed southeast and in the second it is pointed to the southwest.  Either picture, taken alone, does not present the whole story.  But if your brain sees only one of the pictures, it assumes the picture it has seen is true.

A second Muggeridge phrase was, “The editor is king.”  When I was an adoption caseworker back in the 80s, an international adoption issue necessitated doing interviews on CNN and the local television stations in New York City.  After the first interview was edited to give a completely inaccurate impression, I realized I should only do live interviews.  On videotape it was far too easy for the editor to tell the story she wanted to tell, instead of the story that actually took place.

When Donald Trump decided to run for president I was confident America was smarter than to elect a reality television star.  Didn’t people understand reality television has little to do with reality? Didn’t they understand that the editor determines exactly what they do and do not see?  Apparently not.

Mark Burnett, the creator of The Apprentice, made Donald Trump president.  Burnett has been selling fantasy to Americans since he started Survivor in 2000.  He is the one who made Trump a star, not by telling the truth, but by making the viewing public believe what Mark Burnett wanted them to believe about Donald Trump.  By the time he was done with his editing magic, Trump looked like a competent CEO and people believed the lie they had been fed.  After all, it was right there on the screen.

Print journalism is a better vehicle for truth telling.  Words are not as easily manipulated as images.  But even with print journalism, the editor still reigns.  The information you read is only as accurate as the editor makes it.  Last year there were two stories written about me in the Denver Post and the New York Times.  The Denver Post is owned by a hedge fund that keeps squeezing profits by cutting back on reporters and editorial staff.  Their 800 word article had eight errors of fact, two of which significantly altered the story.

The New York Times, which has added reporters and editors to its newsroom since the 2016 election, had a 4,000 word article with zero mistakes, not one.  Not all news outlets are created equal.

The Denver Post wants to get it right, but their owners make accurate reporting almost impossible.  But at least the reporters and editorial staff who remain at the Denver Post want to get it right.  When Fox News, Breitbart News, InfoWars and the London Daily Mail reported a very inaccurate story that involved a university in Pennsylvania and my TEDxMileHigh video, not one of those companies bothered to even attempt to contact me to verify their information.  Not one.  They did not care about the truth.  Period.

I want to get my news from people who care about the truth.  I want to get my information from people who are trying to get it right, even if their companies are owned by jerks.  I do not want to get my information from sleazy media outlets that only care about profits and do not care one iota about what is true and what is not true.

It is possible to tell which news outlets work hard to get it right.  You can start by seeing if your preferred newspaper has a “correction” section that appears in every edition and, when necessary, shows corrections at the bottom of any article in which they’ve gotten even one detail wrong.  If your favorite media outlet does not publish corrections, you need to find a new media outlet.

The truth matters.  It always has and always will.  If Malcolm Muggeridge was concerned about the objectivity of undoctored images, how much more concerned would he be with the mayhem we see today, particularly in the electronic media?  These are trying times, and we must not give up the conviction that the truth is ascertainable and will set us free.



Well, Now You’ve Gotten the Women Angry

It is not that hard to do the right thing.  Well, you might lose everything, but after the shock has worn off, you haven’t died. On the other hand, if you choose the wrong thing someone might die.  Children might die.

We are so bombarded by the constant stream of disturbing news that we pretty quickly move on from one frustrating reality to the next jaw-dropping event.  But even with Justice Kennedy’s announced resignation, one newsworthy item is staying in the headlines.  It is the more than 2,000 children who remain separated from their parents.

This past weekend there were 628 protests in 50 states against the current administration’s stance on immigration issues, particularly as it relates to those 2,000 children.  Many Americans are outraged, and with good reason.  These children will suffer lifelong mental health issues because of the unconscionable action taken by this administration.  But I have been almost as appalled by the lack of action taken by the evangelical church as I have been by the edicts coming out of Washington.

When it comes to the border crisis, megachurch pastors have responded like political pros, using flowery words that signify nothing. I read the response of one megachurch pastor that was silky smooth and utterly toothless.  Basically it said, “Whatever conclusion you reach, it is your conclusion, and as long as you’ve thought it through, your conclusion is good.”  Except that separating mothers from their children is not good.  It is never good.  It never has been good.  It never will be good.

But these guys, and they are all guys, are so afraid of alienating someone, they take no stand, which of course is a stand. To make a rather drastic but not altogether inappropriate analogy, the Holocaust would never have happened without the stony silence of the German church.

Of course, America’s evangelical churches do take a stand.  They take a stand on the pet subjects of their male leadership.  They take a stand against perfectly normal and healthy LGBTQ people, because their tribe has deemed that population to be a threat.  They take a stand against abortion, while allowing irreparable damage to be done to children who are already breathing.

I believe the lack of response to the border crisis is one more giant misstep sealing the fate of the current leaders of the American evangelical church.  Their empty rhetoric in these critically important hours reveals the mold eating away beneath their polished facade.  The evangelical church may not recover, and I am beginning to believe that is not a bad thing.  Last week a friend tweeted, “Okay, you got your Muslim ban.  When do we get our evangelical ban?”  This is how a large number of Americans feel about evangelicalism.

What goes around comes around.    Do evangelicals not know this?  Every church that gains political power eventually comes undone at the seams.  A David comes along with a sling and a stone and brings down the giant with one well-placed throw.

I love all the mothers who are coming together to address this crisis, because if we’re honest, it’s the mothers who get it.  Children are our most precious resource.  Those who mess with their wellbeing will pray a price.

It is courageous and brave women who are bringing power to the #ChurchToo movement.  They came together and spoke their stories, knowing they would be vilified by many of their former friends.  But nevertheless they persisted.

Some of the best-known female evangelical leaders have gotten behind the movement to return children to their parents.  All of these women are finding the courage to do what the male evangelical power brokers are unwilling to do.  They are calling evangelicalism on its misogyny, its racism, its homophobia, its anti-immigrant stance and its sexual abuse.  While the men stand with their deer in the headlights look, the women are boldly saying, “We will be silent no more.”

I think we might have found our David.